Well. It seems we're to have a British waterworks with an Arab flag on it. Do you think it was worth it?
- Dryden, “Lawrence of Arabia”
The Pre-Christmas deal to maintain payroll tax relief is only the latest in a string of cobbled together arrangements that have kept the federal government stumbling along. This cycle of confrontation, brinksmanship, and last minute deal-cutting will only intensify as the November, 6, 2012 election day draws closer.
What is to be done about governing the federal government? It is one thing to offer a clear choice to voters during a campaign. It is quite another to never leave campaign mode. The resulting battle of soundbites has created chaos in Washington, DC and disgust among most voters. Trust and faith in Congress and the White House have both sunk to historic lows.
Some insights can be drawn from my favorite movie of all time – “Lawrence of Arabia”. The movie provides breathtaking cinematography, a majestic soundtrack, and exhilarating action sequences. It also provides a cautionary tale on the difference between warfare and governing. In the movie, T.E. Lawrence and his Bedouin army become experts at blowing-up trains, but they fall into chaos when they try to govern Damascus.
Our current political leaders have all become experts at blowing-up trains. Both sides display skill at stopping things and delivering pithy rejoinders about who is to blame. However, both sides have lost the ability to govern. The only way both sides think they can gain or retain power is to ignite passions on fringe issues and demonize opponents on all issues. Common ground has vanished. Worse, it is viewed as the domain of the weak.
Wreaking havoc with your opponents is necessary when you are preparing the way for political victory and a fundamental “regime change”. However, what if there is no plan after battlefield victory? That is the current problem. Both sides want perpetual warfare because both sides have no interest in peace. There is no need for governing skills, as there are only lulls in the fighting.
The gold standard for modern political leadership is Ronald Reagan. Conservatives, like myself, devoted years to preparing for his revolution. This included Members and staff in Congress “wrecking trains” and “tearing-up rail lines” on a daily basis to prevent President Carter and the Democrats from doing more damage to America. Our parliamentary warfare was designed for a purpose – every bill defeated was one less law we would have to reverse once Reagan was President. Every bill delayed was fewer days Carter would have to implement the new law and thus making it easier for Reagan to dismantle.
The difference between what we did from 1978-1980 and the current warfare is that we had a core understanding of what was to come. Reagan and the conservative movement had a clear vision of what was needed to save America, defeat communism, and rein-in big government. We knew that November 1980 would be a shift from fighting on the outside to fighting on the inside. We would be required to rebuild some of the “rail lines” using conservative principles, while using our new inside resources to destroy communism. Therefore, governing became a mix of settlement and disruption.
The current political landscape is total disruption and the only vision is further disruption. This would be somewhat tolerable if permanent gridlock was the desired outcome. But, it is the antithesis of what is needed with America’s economy needing to be rebuilt and America’s role in the world needing to be rethought.
Could Reagan do in 2013-2016 do what he did in 1981-1989? Unfortunately - and sadly - no. The current political atmosphere is too toxic. Inspirational words and deeds would be torn apart by all involved. Politicians and pundits, with a few exceptions, are all so self-absorbed, that no one is willing to rally around anyone. It is like a bunch of ancient warlords – factions within factions with blood feuds barring rational dialogue, let alone compromise, from occurring.
A better leader for our times is George Washington. His fundamental belief in a viable nation allowed him to remain above the fray. More importantly, from presiding over the Constitutional Convention to his final days as President, Washington was able to select the best of both factions for the overall good of the country. Pure Hamiltonianism and Jeffersonianism would have been led to either autocracy or mob rule. Only Washington could see the brilliance in both men and steer them and their supporters toward a workable and governable mix.
No matter who prevails during the coming brutally hyper-partisan months that lie ahead, they should look to our first President as their leadership model. They should focus on the 80% on which most people agree, tread lightly on the 2% on which many people emotionally disagree, and confront rational differences on the remaining 18%. Only then can we move away from this current governing crisis and return to the path of achieving a “more perfect union”.